This year, Harvard’s incoming freshman class was asked to complete an assignment by bedtime on move-in day.
If “bedtime” sounds like a weird deadline, consider the homework: To do an online course called Sleep 101. An “interactive module designed to increase student awareness of the health and performance implications of sleep, as well as provide tips and strategies on how best to maintain a healthy sleep schedule in a competitive, busy environment such as college.”
For the past six months, I’ve been attempting my own version of Sleep 101. Not at Harvard, but in my apartment in Brooklyn. I’ve been a terrible sleeper for the past several years. Each week that passes when I realize I’m clocking an average of five hours per night, my panic around my sleeplessness grows. I know the health risks associated with not getting enough sleep. I also know how being bleary-eyed affects the productivity and general enjoyment of my life.
Sleep 101 encourages students to practice sleep hygiene, a popular concept that instructs you how to clean up your nighttime act, put away your phone, and create an optimal environment for sleeping. I love rules and routines, so when the idea of sleep hygiene hit the mainstream, I was hooked. Even the word hygiene has special appeal. It’s as if I could keep scrubbing away at my nightly routine, making it cleaner and cleaner until it was no longer soiled.
And so, I began to build out a nightly ritual. First, I bought a light alarm clock, which, as advertised, wakes you up with the slow progression of light rather than jolting you awake with sound. This way I could leave my cell phone in the other room, and not poison my circadian clock with light after a certain hour.
I set a strict rule of no eating before bed, no caffeine after noon, and bought a blend of ginger chamomile tea, which I envisioned myself sipping while reading, not watching TV (again, avoiding that poisonous electronic light). I also got an expensive noisemaker that made not just white noise, but pink and brown too (each have different frequencies). This would drown out any small noises from the hallway or busy New York City street outside. I moved all the furniture around in my apartment so that my bed could be in the farthest room from the front door, so when my partner came home late from work, I was secluded in my white-noise filled enclave. This is the point when I started to think my sleep would turn around. Instead, it’s when things started to go sour.
I became stressed at the idea of sleeping through my light alarm clock, and sat bolt upright every hour to check the time. A meditation app that I listen to when I travel, that does actually help me sleep, was on my (poisonous) phone, charging in the other room. With just the roar of the noisemaker, I lay in bed with my mind racing, waiting anxiously for my impeccable sleep hygiene to magically start working.
I took a hot shower; took a cold shower; took a walk; tried dry brushing. I read fiction, read non-fiction, and read comics. I got a weighted blanket, often advertised on Instagram, and when I put it on, felt like I was being suffocated. I ordered three sleep masks after spending hours reading Amazon reviews, only to discover I hated sleeping with something on my face. (It was like being Kane from Alien, with some foreign creature strapped tightly to my head.)
My partner, who falls asleep instantaneously and without effort, started to use the weighted blanket after I pushed it off me. He told me he didn’t think it was possible for him to sleep any better than he does naturally, but somehow all of my efforts were making his sleep deeper. The noisemaker, the light canceling curtains—it’s crazy, he told me, with his fresh, alert, bagless eyes: He was sleeping better than ever. Up to ten hours a night. Well. That didn’t help me sleep at night either.
Tell me if this sounds familiar, fellow insomniacs: I turned the resentment I felt at my partner’s effortless, mouth-open, spit-dribbled slumber (and my lack thereof) into a new narrative for myself. Only sleeping a little meant that I was better than him. I was productive. I got up early to read and write. Don't most of the world's CEOs get up at 5 AM? So do I, thanks for asking. It’s easy to lean into this false superiority. But it’s a lie, friends. It’s a way to distract from the issue at hand. So I’ve recently decided to try something radical: To stop trying.
There’s a poem from 1871 about a centipede that goes like this:
The Centipede was happy quite,
Until a Toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
And worked her mind to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in a ditch
Considering how to run.
It’s also referred to as the Centipede Syndrome, which is: Sometimes, when you put too much effort into something that’s supposed to come naturally, you end up in a ditch unable to move. In my version of this fable, I am both the centipede and the toad. I've been relentlessly demanding of myself: What is the ideal way to fall asleep? And consequently, completely forgetting how to do it.
Sleep hygiene is an important component to the recommended treatment for insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT-I. But it’s part of a larger treatment program. For me, it was probably counter-productive to isolate it, and place too much attention on it.
The more you catastrophize not getting a perfect night's sleep, the more intent you put into it, the harder sleep can become. A study from 2014 found that when really good sleepers are asked to put a lot of effort into falling asleep, they have trouble, too. Researchers told these good sleepers how important it was for them to fall asleep as quickly as possible, and promised them money if they could do so. When they compared these instructions with more neutral guidance, the sleepers who were put under pressure woke up more. “Our findings suggest that high intention to fall asleep worsened sleep quality, especially in terms of sleep fragmentation, in good sleepers,” the authors wrote.
The ideal amount of effort one should put into sleep is zero effort. But how do you try to put in zero effort? As a chronic do-er, this isn't in my nature.
Turns out there’s a component of CBT-I called paradoxical intention. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine describes this as “remaining passively awake and avoiding any efforts to fall asleep.”
This can be helpful for people, like me, who are getting too wrapped up in the process. Instead, it recommends to try not falling asleep, and allowing sleep to sneak up on you, rather than chasing after it with a pitchfork.
So, I'm going to chill out. I'm losing the weighted blanket, definitely getting rid of the eye masks, and am going to bring my phone back into the bedroom. Most importantly, I'm going to try to stop beating myself up for a bad night's sleep, or an imperfect routine. Maybe it will help this centipede remember how to run.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.